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Dubliners-Symbolism of Fire

By incorrectangle May 30, 2013 1393 Words
Flames have been inextricably linked with humanity since the origins of the first civilizations; immortalized in myth, commended by culture, and worshipped in religion. The epitome of heat and warmth, of energy, power and action, fire’s virtues undoubtedly support the importance it is associated with. Flames keep back the encroaching darkness, the perennial cold. It is the internal flame that sparks the innovation and creativity within the human mind and the external fire that has allowed for humans to advance. Fire has been powering human advancement and invention for millennia, a source of energy for the furnace of mankind. In James Joyce’s novel Dubliners, Joyce incorporates fire and flames; however Joyce’s use of fire is not to shed light on the jovial atmosphere of Dublin. Rather Joyce’s pervasive use of flame in a minor state and its noticeable absence, serves to exemplify the decaying nature of Dublin as well as the enervation and dissipation of the spirits and moral of its inhabitants. Fire has had its roots mutually tied to humanity since the dawn of both forces and subsequently epitomizes the hope, faith and innovation of man. In Greek mythology the titan Prometheus brought fire to mankind, an act, which signaled the age of humanity. Though the veracity of such a legend is dubitable there is no doubt that the presence of control of fire has enabled humans to better themselves; by allowing them to advance in technology, to survive in the harsh world of cold and predators. In society, fire has come to signify action, love, power, and justice. Flames project protection and haven from the ever-present cold and from the dangers of the world. However fire is not merely limited to the physical substantiate but also the metaphorical and figurative realms. The blaze inside an individual signifies the motivation, the indicative drive to carry on and succeed in the face of difficulty or struggle. The polar opposite of fire is the cold, which is especially prevalent in Dubliners because of the absence of flame. The cold is somber and grim, portraying the stark bleakness of the world and the uniformity that comes with its harbinger; snow. Snow covers all, blanketing the ground in a white sheen, devoid of color, that deprives the world self-expression and action. Joyce makes frequent and effective use of both the flame and the cold and their respective symbolisms with his novel Dubliners. The minute role of fire shows the fading moral principles and the dissipating collective spirit of Dublin’s inhabitants. The young narrator of The Sisters comes home to “Old Cotter…sitting at the fire” (pg1), whom the narrator regards as a “tiresome old fool” (pg1), and is infuriated by Old Cotter’s crude remarks about the “peculiar [case]” (pg1) between Father Flynn and the narrator’s. The fire hearth, which usually represents the hospitality of home, is instead occupied by a cantankerous man, who insults the narrator’s actions and desecrates the fireplace by spitting “rudely into the grate” (pg2). This nondescript, non-active presence that fire holds as it is blocked by a negative force is representative of the dying spirit of Dublin’s inhabitants and the hostility that resides in the city. The nearly undetectable presence of fire is also displayed in the story Ivy Day in the Committee Room. Flames play a major role in the overarching theme of the story. The fire a “whitening dome of coals” is feebly burning as the men in the room argue politics and nationalism (pg115). However none of the men take action during the intercourse, instead passively accepting their individual predicaments. The flame of the room is dying and consequently so is the motivation of Dublin to push for political change. The men are uninterested in actually completing their assignments, instead waiting for alcohol and pay, all the while gossiping behind the backs of each other. To add insult to injury is the fire’s representation of Parnell, Ireland’s deceased nationalistic-political leader. The flames, reflective of Parnell roaring fervor for action, which once inspired generations of Irish to rise to push for independence, have been reduced to a smoldering wreck used for trivial matters such as opening bottles of stout. This dying flame is used as a marker that laments the pitiful state of paralysis that encompasses Dublin and its inhabitants. Fire, a symbol for hope, has only a minor role in Dublin, a reflection of the lack of hope and faith within the city. The absence of fire and the subsequent presence of its opposite, cold, in Dubliners show the unquenchable anger, futility and moral depravity of Dublin’s inhabitants. In The Boarding House the stigmatized relationship between Polly and Mr. Doran is set off when Polly sneaks into Doran’s room with the intent “to relight her candle at his”(pg62). The absence of fire in this scene becomes the catalyst that ensnares Mr. Doran within the deceptive plan of Polly and Mrs. Mooney, a marriage in which neither Mr. Doran nor Polly seems to find happiness in. This lack of fire serves as a marker of the moral depravity within Dublin as Polly’s desire to relight her candle digresses into a much more insidious action. The lack of fire within the stories also shows the obstinate anger that harbors within the soul of Dublin’s inhabitants. Within Counterparts Farrington comes home to a “kitchen empty and [a] fire nearly out”(pg93). His body already brimming with anger the dying fire becomes the last straw for Farrington as he begins to ruthlessly beat his innocent son to “teach [his son] to [let the fire out] again”(pg94). This cruel, unjustified action, once again literally the result of the absence of fire within the scene, connects the anger that is apparent in Dublin with the absence of warmth and hope. The presence of coldness and snow in the story, both of which result from a lack of fire or heat, shows the hopelessness and dreary life of Dublin. In A Painful Case Mr. Duffy is left out in “a cold gloomy” night separated from the “the lights [of Dublin] which [burn] redly”, an image which invokes what fire is left (pg113). Out in the cold and excommunicated from both the heat of Dublin and the fire of passion Mr. Duffy is transfixed by his epiphany in which he realizes that “he [is] alone”(pg114). The cold night devoid of any heat underscores the loneliness of Mr. Duffy and generalizes the unanimous emptiness in all of Dublin. In The Dead snow is used as a symbol to express the dreariness of life in Dublin. As Gabriel lingers on the boundaries between consciousness and sleep his realization of the “snow general all over Ireland” spawns his helplessness as he feels “his own identity…fading out into a grey impalpable world” (pg225). The snow punctuates the chill of Dublin in its frozen paralytic state. In Dublin, the fire of hope and action has been extinguished from both the homes of its inhabitants and from the city itself, leaving the community to struggle with the merciless cold and snow that remains behind. Fire is an inseparable aspect of human culture, raised from the cradle of civilization and carried into the modern age. The merits of fire allowed for humanity to take advantage over the forces of nature; allowed for humans to invent in the safety of light; fueled the machinery of technology. The recessive, minimal role that fire plays in Dubliners shows the forsaken city of Dublin, lost in the haze of paralysis, it’s collective spirit failing. Dublin a vast city which should have a brightly burning fire; a heat in which the citizens should strive to improve in is instead slowly freezing over, lost to the white snow that falls to cover the living and the dead in an internal stasis. Fire, a symbol of justice, love and power, is twisted into a grotesque motif, representing avarice, languish, and irony. The lack of fire serves to show that here is no hope for a rekindling of the flame, how the inhabitants of Dublin are content to live out in the perpetual murk of paralysis. For in Dublin the flames which powered the city have long gone out leaving an empty shell of a city, devoid of enthusiasm, behind, slowly being consumed by the cold and fading into the lethargy of darkness.

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